They came to Colorado looking for gold. Hundreds of thousands of them, mostly from 1858 onwards, after a certain William Green Russell hit copious pay dirt at a place called Cherry Creek, not far from Pikes Peak.
Like all canny prospectors he tried to keep his good fortune secret, but even in those days before telephones and Twitter, confidential information travelled uncomfortably fast. Soon there were entire wagons of families heading towards Pikes Peak – the most visible landmark in the area – some of them emblazoned with banners upon which slogans such as “Pikes Peak or bust” were written. The settlers came mostly from California, where gold had been discovered 20 years earlier, hoping to see history repeat itself. But they also came from the east, and even from as far afield as Europe.
More than 150 years later, little has changed. Most of the gold rush settlements are abandoned now (there are more than 700 officially classified ‘ghost towns’ in Colorado: more than anywhere else in the United States) and the state governor of the time, James W. Denver, would never have guessed that the rough and ready trading post he established in 1858 would eventually go on to become the 23rd largest city in the country.
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In 1859 Denver was still a collection of log cabins; Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune wrote that the place was the scene of “more brawls, more fights, more pistol shots with criminal intent” than anywhere else he had seen. The stakes were high: it’s impossible to know for sure, but it’s estimated that $18 million of gold was extracted from the local area within the space of a year. In those desperate times, even gold dust – a pinch of gold between thumb and forefinger – was worth about 25 cents.
A certain wild side remains to rural Colorado, even though the colourful saloons, bawdy houses and desperado prospectors have long gone. Only the occasional mine shaft and wooden riverside shack remains as a reminder of that boisterous era, along with village names such as Gold Hill, Dorado, Auraria and Golden.
Yet they still come, every year, in their wagons to Pikes Peak. Because the mountain hosts what is actually the second-oldest race in America, after the Indy 500. When the first Pikes Peak hillclimb took place in 1916, some of the people watching would still – just about – have remembered the gold rush.
As for the other legends that historically make up our motorsport landscape – iconic races like Le Mans and the Monaco Grand Prix – they hadn’t even been thought of yet.
Which sort of puts into perspective just what an enduring event Pikes Peak is. People talk a lot about ‘hallowed ground’, but driving up the 20-kilometre route really is following in the footsteps of giants: daring pioneers who drove faster and higher than anyone had ever gone before.
This is the epic tradition that Robin Shute – the winner of this year’s 99th Pikes Peak race, in his Wolf prototype on Pirelli hillclimb tyres – bought into. It was the Englishman’s second win there, which he described as “completely bonkers’ – because conditions were so bad, with snow and ice at the top, that the route had to be shortened.
For weeks before the race, the drivers have plenty of opportunity to practise, but once the flag falls, that’s it.
One shot up the hill: just car and driver through 156 corners and 1436 metres. Above them the sky, to one side a rock face, to the other, a vertiginous drop. It’s still Pikes Peak or bust – at one of the last great adventures left in global motorsport.
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